Sunday, March 3, 2013

China's Expansion into the Atlantic

Last November, I noted an article from the National Review about China's interest in the Azores. There does not appear to have been any further developments, per se, but there has been further analysis of the issue.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev at World Politics Review published this piece on December 7, 2012, opining that China is a long way from establishing a military outpost in the Azores. From the article:
For now, Wen’s unofficial stopover in the Azores says more about China’s desire to establish some sort of presence in the critical Atlantic sea lanes of communication than about debt-ridden Portugal’s desire to enter into any basing deals with Beijing. But that could change. As Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist with the Center for a New American Security, noted, Europe’s current financial straits could make it harder for the Portuguese, as well as other U.S. allies, to resist offers from cash-flush Beijing that would soften the impact of American downsizing at Lajes and similar facilities elsewhere in the Euro-Atlantic theater.
So if the United States does not want to see China gain the use of a facility that could potentially impact U.S. access to the Mediterranean and put New York in striking distance of Chinese naval and air power, it would appear that Washington should reconsider the cuts at Lajes.
That would be shortsighted, however, for it would create a very unfortunate precedent: European states -- and, by extension, Latin American, Middle Eastern or African countries -- that are likely to be negatively affected by the shift of U.S. attention to the Asia-Pacific region would have an incentive to bargain with Washington by playing the China card. We are already seeing echoes of this elsewhere, particularly in China’s reported interest in gaining a bridgehead in the Caribbean and its renewed interest in acquiring facilities and land in both Greenland and Iceland as a way to make Beijing a player in the scramble for the Arctic.
This February 8, 2013, article at CIMSEC by Felix Seidler takes a more pessimistic view. It notes that China does not need a large or showy military presence in the Azores, but could operate a small "scientific" outpost; and the site may be ideal for signals intelligence (SIGNINT). However, as alluded to in the WPR article above, Seidler takes the view that China's interest in the Azores is simply part of a larger strategy to ensure access to Africa. Seidler writes:
This new development in the territory of a NATO country must be seen in the context of China’s efforts in another NATO member, Iceland. China has heavily invested in the country’s ports and infrastructure because Beijing in the long-term expects an ice-free Arctic to open new shipping routes. Meanwhile in Greenland, whose foreign policy is administered by NATO member Denmark, vast quantities of important resources have also caught China’s eye and spurred development plans.
China is attempting to protect and project its strategic interests in the Atlantic and is doing so within NATO countries. This broader trend should not be dismissed without broader analysis. Such moves – note the plural – are something entirely new.
As stated above, the idea of an operational Chinese naval and aerial presence appears bizarre. Why should China try to station hardware, either civil or military or dual-use, on the other side of the world in the midst of a “hostile inland sea”? Viewed strategically, however, and it’s apparent that such a move would be a stab in NATO’s heart. In Iceland, China’s concerns (so far) are civilian and economic projects, but if the Portuguese government allowed the Chinese, in whatever form, a permanent presence on the Azores, it would be a strategic disaster.
... Some of you may be thinking, but doesn’t the Malacca Strait, Gulf of Aden, Suez Canal, and Strait of Gibraltar separate China from the Atlantic? The answer again is due to the developments in the Arctic. In the long term, China’s shortest way into the Atlantic no longer leads through the bottlenecks of the Indian Ocean, but via the Arctic, once the Northeast Passage is ice-free. Regardless, it requires little to imagine Chinese ships, after a stop at the newly opened port in Pakistan’s Gwadar, sailing by the Horn of Africa and through the Mediterranean for a short visit further into the Atlantic. Due to the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011 we could see a recognized requirement for presence for the first (and not last) time.
Heading South
Pop Quiz: Where have Chinese pilots performed their first takeoffs from an aircraft carrier? In the Pacific? Wrong. In the South Atlantic? Right. It is on the Brazilian carrier Sao Paulo that Chinese pilots trained for takeoffs and landings. With the initiation of such military ties, it’s possible that the Chinese pilots and their Brazilian trainers will someday have the opportunity to meet again alongside their carriers during port visits and joint exercises.
Such a vision may or may not come to pass, but China’s interest in the South Atlantic is nothing new, due to Nigeria’s and Angola’s oil, construction projects across the continents, booming markets, and vast extractive industries. Potential sites for Chinese naval bases in the South Atlantic are already discussed openly. If somewhat of a new development for the North Atlantic, Chinese interest in the Azores fits into the picture of China’s pivot to Africa further to the south.

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